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Marci Jacobs/ MEDILL

Federal candidates received 33 percent of Exelon PAC's total 2012 contributions.

Exelon a major donor in energy politics

by Marci Jacobs
June 14, 2013

If the Jeopardy clue were “one of the U.S.’s foremost supporters of wildlife protection,” a giant nuclear company might not come to mind.

And yet, the nation’s largest nuclear energy producer has a trail of political contributions that, on first glance, could make tree-huggers cheer. In the past two years, Chicago-based Exelon Corp.’s political action committee, Exelon Pac, has directed top contributions to legislators who advocate wildlife refuge protection and clean energy policy.

Exelon Pac provided $645,100 to federal candidates in the 2012 election cycle, 64 percent of that toward Republicans and 36 percent to Democrats. Ninety-two Exelon employees and one spouse contributed to the PAC.

“Exelon’s success depends on sound public energy policies, and similar to our peers in the nuclear and electric utility industries, we support candidates from both parties who we believe will help advance sensible policies,” said Exelon spokesman Paul Elsberg. “We use specific criteria to decide which candidates to support, including those who represent our service areas and communities, can impact energy policy through their roles, or have stated their support for sound energy policy.”

Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) were Exelon Pac’s chief beneficiaries in 2012. The PAC contributed $15,000 to each campaign, making it both candidates’ sixth highest donor.

Fitzpatrick and Snowe have been recognized as trailblazers in moving environmental protection and sustainable energy policies through Congress.

Snowe is a legendary environmental defender who played a critical role in amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in the 1980s, creating a single nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. While Snowe exited the 2012 race, she would likely have been instrumental in crafting the new nuclear waste disposal policy unveiled by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in April. The policy aims to locate sites and construct repositories for the long-term storage of used nuclear fuel.

Conservation groups applauded Fitzgerald this year for introducing bipartisan wilderness legislation calling for greater protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

Fitzpatrick vocally supports adoption of clean energy alternatives. At a Hatfield, Penn., Chamber of Commerce meeting in April, he said he believes the country could be energy independent in about a decade, “with a diverse energy portfolio that includes a combination of oil, clean coal, nuclear power, sustainable alternatives, as well as taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s abundant natural gas.”

Pennsylvania is home to a large portion of the Marcellus Shale Formation, the largest source of domestic natural gas ever discovered in the U.S.

But is it environmental or corporate interests that Exelon Pac’s recipients have at heart?

“The history of the company is very clear, and they’re not any different from any other major corporation in the sense that they have a corporate philosophy of ‘shareholder first,’” said David Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, Illinois’ nuclear energy watchdog group. “They’ve always portrayed themselves as clean and green. But historically, if you look at the record, they’ve opposed almost every meaningful piece of legislation on energy policy.”

While Fitzpatrick opposes drilling in Alaska’s outer shelf, he champions hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in his own state. Pennsylvania is, after all, home to nearly 20 Exelon plants, 12 of which use fossil fuels and would be threatened by a fresh influx of cheap natural gas into the U.S. market. Exelon paid $340 million in taxes to the state of Pennsylvania in 2011.

The website “On the Issues” quotes Fitzpatrick as stating that he supports “development of the Marcellus Shale with its clean-burning, natural gas resource and the new jobs it would bring to our state.”

But environmental groups like Clean Water Action call Fitzpatrick’s policies anything but clean. Clean Water Action posts that “Rep. Fitzpatrick often claims to be ‘moderate’ on the environment, but only scored 25 percent in Clean Water Action’s latest Congressional Scorecard, and he even voted to block new restrictions on toxic mercury pollution.” Clean Water Action is a Washington, D.C., -based grassroots environmental organization with one million members and 19 offices nationwide.

Elsberg is quick to clarify that Exelon has no stake in the fracking game.

“We’re not a fracker,” he said. “Any decision to support a candidate because they support sound energy policies will have more to do with issues that are relevant to us.”

Elsberg explains that the company must reconcile a variety of interests, with its eye ever focused on supporting sustainable energy.

“We advocate for policies that best balance the interests of our customers, shareholders, employees and other stakeholders, plain and simple,” he said. “As a result, we have one of the industry’s strongest track records of supporting clean energy policies, including advocating in favor of EPA clean air rules and well-crafted federal legislation that would create a long-term price signal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

But the Environmental Protection Agency likely does not enjoy Exelon’s full support.

In April 2011, Fitzpatrick and Snowe voted on a divisive piece of legislation to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases to address climate change. The bill would have ceded climate change policy to the EPA and out of the direct hands of Congress.

The Obama administration strongly supports clean air policies, with the EPA encouraging state emissions standards or a national cap-and-trade mandate. And they’re making progress, with a slew of emissions rules expected to come before Congress this year, including a revised draft of carbon pollution standards for new power plants.

“I think that what Exelon likes about what Rep. Fitzpatrick has voted is the general idea that EPA should not be the decision-maker regarding what happens with pollution from energy. That is a core principle for companies like Exelon,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania State Director for Clean Water Action.

Arnowitt adds, “What we’re seeing in the last Congress, 2011-2012, is that Fitzpatrick decided for the most part he would go along with the Republican agenda of trying to block EPA’s ability to protect the public health.”

Exelon’s contributions reflect, perhaps, the public’s broader ambivalence toward nuclear energy. While efforts to stem greenhouse gases tend to reward nuclear power’s zero carbon emissions, events like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown elicit worst-case scenario fears.

“Exelon both enjoys and is at risk of two very game-changing developments right now in the power market. On one hand you have a strong move toward emissions controls,” said Travis Miller, analyst and director of utilities research for Morningstar. On the other hand, he points out, the public has concerns “about nuclear operations and even the viability of nuclear power.”

Exelon itself remains committed to sustainable energy. Elsberg explains that despite the obvious criticism lobbed at the nuclear energy industry, “Credible stakeholders in this arena acknowledge Exelon’s work over more than a decade to enhance our sustainability and help our customers do the same. Exelon today has one of the industry’s cleanest power generation portfolios, with 55 percent nuclear, 28 percent natural gas and 10 percent hydro, wind, solar and other clean generation.”

Beyond Pac contributions, Exelon invests in nonprofits and programs focused on environmental stewardship, donating nearly $5 million to these causes last year. So is the company an environmental protector or profiteer? Perhaps for the sustainable energy industry there’s no real clean break.